- The Triumph of Brazilian Modernism: The Metanarrative of Emancipation and Counter-Narratives by Saulo Gouveia
Textbooks, literary histories, educators, and scholars frequently have made the same overarching claim about the Brazilian modernist movement of the 1920s: it constituted a liberating rupture from worn-out styles and themes. The Triumph of Brazilian Modernism challenges this assumption by arguing that, although the aesthetics of Modernism constituted a rupture, other aspects of the movement—such as its sponsorship, milieu, and glorification of the bandeirantes—maintained conservative traditions more than normally is acknowledged. Gouveia asks the following questions about the Brazilian Modernist movement of the 1920s (which from here on I’ll refer to as Modernism): Who decided that Modernism stood for emancipation? How did this idea become normalized? In what ways does this definition of Modernism overlook conservative components of the movement? To answer these questions, Gouveia historicizes texts that have too often, in his view, been read primarily on formalist grounds.
The ampersand in the book’s title marks the division between Part One and Part Two of Gouveia’s study. Part One chronologically examines how Modernism became synonymous with the nation’s cultural emancipation. Modernist writers in São Paulo were the agents of their own legitimization. They self-consciously crafted, financed, and wrote about a literary movement in a way that secured that movement’s canonization while its founders were still alive and active. By the 1950s, thanks to changes in school curricula and to literary histories written during that decade, Modernism enjoyed a secure place in the Brazilian literary canon.
The “triumph of Modernism” is that it successfully made itself indispensable to Brazil by claiming responsibility for the country’s authentic cultural identity: “The metanarrative of Modernism constitutes an aesthetic/philosophical manifestation of the narrative of emancipation. It defines Modernism as the pinnacle, the historical moment when the battle for an authentic national identity finally achieved its goals” (37). Part One examines Modernists’ involvement in the key events and institutions that together secured its canonization: The Week of Modern Art, the cultural projects of the first Vargas regime (1930–1945), the founding of the Universidade de São Paulo (1932), and Minister Gustavo Capanema’s promotion of Modernist anthologies. Gouveia notes that the “most important fact to consider with regard to the early signs of the canonization of the literature of Modernism is that modernist intellectuals (Mário de Andrade, Manuel Bandeira, Sérgio Milliet) or intellectuals identified with the modernist movement (Alceu Amoroso Lima) were in the positions of arbiters,” as educators, government employees, anthologists, and literary critics (73). The first chapter successfully argues how “Modernism became the hallmark of the state cultural and educational apparatuses during the 1930s and 40s” (79). [End Page E13]
In the second and final chapter in Part One, the reader learns how the literary histories written during the 1950s, which secured Modernism’s canonization, crafted the following overarching narrative: Modernism overthrew Brazilian literature’s dependence on European forms, introducing a dramatic change in writing and a more innovative Brazilian style. Gouveia argues that literary criticism and literary history through the 1970s perpetuated this view of Modernism as a cultural revolution by underscoring its radical aesthetic innovation, while overlooking the ways in which Modernism also involved a continuation of tradition.
Gouveia offers a thorough analysis of the Noigandres group’s argument that, through the Modernist antropofagia, dominated cultures devour the dominant culture inherited from Europe, thus creating new cultural exports and defying European values. This synchronic approach to understanding Modernism—which drew on Bakhtin’s dialogism and carnivalesque—viewed Modernism for the first time beyond the confines of a linear literary history and a strictly national conceptualization (105). The Noigandres group, by lauding Oswald de Andrade’s poetry, was instrumental in securing a place in the Brazilian canon for this work, which Oswald’s contemporaries reviewed less enthusiastically. The remaining sections of Part One analyze how Modernism has been interpreted in terms of its use of parody, irony, and primitivism in...